Best Practice

What is Cognitive Load theory?

Cognitive Load theory was developed to explain the limitations of the human brain to process sensory information (sight, sound, touch, smell, taste, etc.) when it encounters new information. Implicit in this definition is an understanding that a person’s longterm (or “permanent” memory) does not require much cognitive effort to recall, but new information requires a lot more cognitive effort to make sense of it.

The following video produced by 3 Minute Ed Theory shows a visual description of Cognitive Load theory. It applies Cognitive Load theory in an education context, but it is equally relevant in professional communications.


What is Cognitive Overload?

Cognitive overload is a phenomenological state where the human brain has been overwhelmed with too much information and is no longer able to effectively process anymore sensory information into a coherent sense.

For example, you might be able to effectively process what one person is saying to you, but if four people are speaking to you all at once, you would fall into a state of Cognitive Overload. You might experience Cognitive Overload if only one person was speaking to you about a very complex situation or topic that was unfamiliar to you. Even with only one person speaking, the complexity of the information might become too much for you to process because it was presented to you too quickly.

When you produce visual media–in a file format, video format, or interactive format–you must take into consideration that your audience can only process a limited amount of information at once, especially if your audience has very little prior knowledge of the subject matter.

The following articles offer a variety of interpretations and best practices for producing media that avoid cognitive overload:

Cognitive Overload explained, in theory: “Reducing Cognitive Overload For A Better User Experience” by Danny Halarewich, September 9, 2016. Halarewich applies Cognitive Overload in the Web design and user interface perspective. Read only through the theoretical sections. You may continue through the Web design application sections if you are interested. Otherwise, it is not required.

Cognitive Overload in video production: “Top explainer marketing videos work by reducing ‘cognitive load’” by Bruce McKenzie. McKenzie presents the basics of Cognitive Overload within the context of marketing videos, but his five points of advice can be applied just as well to other types of videos.

An e-learning perspective:7 Facts About Cognitive Overload That Every eLearning Pro Should Know” by Christopher Pappas, August 25, 2018. Pappas describes how Cognitive Overload applies when creating interactive online multimedia.


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